If someone invited you to a two- hour stand-up routine by an ultra post-modern comedian, so sophisticated that he satirises himself, his audience and all the big names on the circuit, you might pass and ask to see a panto instead.
But Stewart Lee's humour is the opposite of pretentious. Sure, his new show, Carpet Remnant World (I'll come to the title later), is clever, and riddled with oblique references – you're expected to know about Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls, and see the absurdity in the Vatican changing its doctrine on Purgatory. But he isn't showing off – he just assumes you're on his intellectual level. And if you're not, he doesn't want you there anyway. As he keeps saying to any Jimmy Carr fans in the audience: "It's not for you," adding, for his loyal fans, "It'll soon be back to just us."
At the same time he is mock-baffled that the BBC hasn't commissioned him for a third series – it hasn't had time to make a decision. "They're too busy commissioning 200 episodes of Russell Howard and writing Rob Brydon a blank cheque."
In his deadpan, "passive aggressive", middle-aged and bitter way, Lee brilliantly deconstructs and savages other comedians' techniques, so when a joke's not going very well, he says, you slip in a reference to rectal bleeding. Or just add a bit, and then a bit more, and eventually you get a laugh. "In the trade we call it Boyle's law."
If his Michael McIntyre prancing is funny, then his riff on what he calls "observational comedy" is funnier still, as in those comedians who endlessly say, "have you noticed the way ...?". As he puts it: "You can't just go on stage and ask a load of questions without a punchline. Can you?" Of course, the twist is that he is indulging in "observational comedy" about comedy itself.
This sort of meta-comedy, if it can be called that, is the seam running through the show. Take his self-deprecation. He says he's got no material because his life consists of watching Scooby-Doo with his son, and driving round the North Circular. In the hands of another comedian, being told they've got no jokes would be annoying. It's been done before. But Lee pushes it further. Towards the end of the first half, he starts looking at the prompts scrawled on his hand. He does it so subtly, just as you would if you actually had forgotten your script, that for a moment I thought, yeah, actually, you are rubbish. But as the first half fizzles and you realise the fizzling is the joke, the laugh is on you for falling for it.
It's not all so convoluted – there are one-liners too. Such as: "My wife wants me to have a vasectomy." Sigh. "Hardly any point." And there are meta-one-liners, such as: "That was a joke ... They do stick out." Then there are moments of sheer silliness, like the Scooby-Doo riff. Having watched the same cartoon 180 times, it's his only frame of reference. So when he goes into observational comedy mode, the question he keeps asking is: "You know those jungle canyon rope bridges, right, you know, the ones that are always broken ...?"
And what of the show's title? It refers to the carpet remnant store he finds himself going into, on one of his lonely motorway drives. But its true significance comes clear only at the end. Suddenly, a show that you thought was just a meandering two hours of deadpan half-baked material-free nonsense – as he keeps telling you it is – comes together, tight as a ball of string. At the beginning, he tells you what will happen one minute from the end, to "create an illusion of structure". Except it's not an illusion at all – it's just brilliantly post-modern.
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